The Many Native American Tribes
Although what’s now the United States didn’t have a whole lot of Native Americans compared to the Americas as a whole — maybe 1 million to 1.5 million or so at the time of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492 — it certainly had a wide variety. Historians estimate that at least 250 different tribal groups lived in America at that time.
Some estimates have put the number of distinct societies as high as 1,200. They spoke at least 300 languages, none of them written, and many of the languages were as different from each other as Chinese is from English.
In the Northwest
The Northwest Indians were avid traders. Acquisitions of material goods — including slaves — resulted in higher status, and gift-giving in ceremonies called potlatches marked public displays of wealth. Tribes such as the Chinook, the Salishan, and the Makah lived in well-organized, permanent villages of 100 or more.
Abundant fish and a mild climate made many of the tribes relatively prosperous, especially because they dried fish to save for the times of year when food was less available. The Northwest cultures carved elaborate and intricate totem poles, which represented their ancestral heritage.
In the Southwest
Arid conditions made life tougher for tribes in the Southwest. Tribes such as the Apache were foragers, scrounging for everything from bison to grasshoppers, while tribes such as the Hopi scratched out an existence as farmers. In what’s now California, most of the scores of different tribes were pretty laid-back. They lived in villages, as hunters and gatherers.
On the Great Plains
Game, especially bison, was plentiful on the plains, but few people hunted it. Hunting was pretty tough because the Plains Indians — who one day became expert horsemen — didn’t have horses until the middle of the 16th century.
Eventually, Plains tribes like the Cheyenne and Lakota domesticated the wild offspring of horses that Spanish soldiers and explorers brought over. In the meantime, the Plains tribes made do by stalking, ambushing, and occasionally stampeding a herd of bison over a cliff. The tribes were semi-nomadic; they packed up their teepees and moved on when the local food got scarce.
In the Northeast
Tribes fell into two large language groups in the Northeast: the Iroquoian and the Algonquian. Because history shows that human beings divided into two groups but living in the same area tend not to get along, guess what?
The Iroquois and Algonquin tribes fought a lot. They often used tools and weapons made of copper or slate, which they traded back and forth when they weren’t fighting. The Northeast Indians lived in communal longhouses and invented a light, maneuverable canoe made out of birch bark.
A remarkable event involving the Northeast tribes occurred around 1450, when five tribes — the Cayugas, Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, and Senecas — formed the Iroquois League. The purpose of this league was to form an alliance against the Algonquin and settle disputes among themselves.
Some scholars believe the uniting of individual tribes for a common cause may have been looked at by the country’s founding fathers when they were putting together the federalist form of government after the American Revolution.
In the Southeast
The dominant tribes in the Southeast included the Cherokees, the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, the Creeks, and the Seminoles. These tribes got by through a mix of hunting, gathering, and farming. Europeans would later refer to them as the Five Civilized Tribes, in part because they developed codes of law and judicial systems but also because they readily adopted the European customs of running plantations, slaveholding, and raising cattle.
They also often intermarried with Europeans. However, despite European admiration for the Southeast tribes’ abilities to adapt, these Native Americans were still exploited, exterminated, or evacuated.